The Personal Misery of Academic Casualisation

by Terry Duffy

An oft-quoted BBC black humour story foretells that when you’re abruptly told it’s your last programme, BBC boffins ridiculously “up-speak” your new career horizons as paved with fool’s gold! So it has come to pass in the world of academia that we are only as good as our last lecture or dusty monograph! From personal experience I would encourage colleagues to think carefully before contemplating post-tenure “nirvana” as mis-spinned by college Human Resources. H/FE directors share a common preoccupation with book-balancing and in a world of financial tricks there can be few more crafty “sleights of hand” than whole-scale or even piecemeal academic casualisation. UCU consider that at least 40% of academic, research and support staff are now “casualised” and some institutions are much worse!

As one of HR’s “black arts”, casualisation offers short-term flexibility for H/FE financial planners- fiscal benefits which are almost in perverse contrast to the personal misery of affected staff.  Casualisation not only leads to lower wages and benefits, but also directly increases the ratio of unpaid to paid labour, and the intensity of work-loads for everyone! It is a process where a dual labour market develops, stratified and mutually isolated: a core of permanent workers with a periphery of workers on fixed-term contracts. We need also to ponder how people subjectively experience what is inevitably a miserable process! Staff at the sharp end of casualisation are almost entirely atomised, desperately moving from contract to contract or forced to use recruitment agencies. At worst, in many universities and colleges recipients of zero-hour contracts endure a modern form of slavery! This is also a barrier to the development of solidarity with other workers, and frustrates workplace organising by UCU and other trade unions.

Where agencies are involved casualised staff receive only a portion of each hour’s work, leaving the worker doubly exploited, with two sets of parasites extracting a percentage from their service. In many cases casualised staff don’t qualify for full benefits: maternity pay, sick pay, pensions and holiday entitlements etc. As a result of EU legislation, agencies have to extend rudimentary benefits but this is often a PR con-trick with the incorporation of holiday pay into the hourly rate or other benefits being offered only on paper as part of a crafty exercise in shuffling numbers. From past experience one can be sure that we rarely benefit from the HR calculation of fractional or zero-hour post benefits! These never err on the side of generosity- that would be defeating the purpose- stupid!

So across the H/FE sectors with such a large potentially compliant labour force, managers are shifting staff into low wage, low security college “McJobs”, often socially subsidised and highly casualised. Often even course co-ordination is casualised. In such H/FE environs, staff are conditioned to tone down their expectations and to accept inconveniently peripatetic work. Consequently, in looking at this depressing terrain, we need to be aware of the development of new subjectivities. In responding to atomisation we should certainly consider our collective identity based on the shared experience of casualised work but we must also assert our position in the entire academic work-force. Yes, “wake up”; it’s an issue for us all! Your ostensibly permanent position is at risk too!

The stark reality is that casualisation presents a threat to the whole work-force, not just those affected by it right now! The encroachment of fixed-term contracts and the reduction of job security are threats to everyone. If a casualised academic worker finds a better job, they leave behind a position that another worker must fill. The most promising route for our anti-casualisation struggle is the development of stronger links between temporary and permanent staff. To that extent the strategy being favoured by UCU promises to reap some benefits for academic, academic-related and non-academic staff groups across the H/FE world. But it would be naive not to see this as an up-hill struggle! And behind the awful collective reality of the statistics on casualisation are the individual stories of personal misery which threaten to blight all our lives at work and at home!

Terry Duffy, Glyndwr University